I answered a question on this site yesterday where in my answer, I alluded to a problem with cultural bias in early modern Western linguistics.

I tried my best search engine fu to come up with a good link to explain this in more detail, but I failed.

A particular anecdote I mentioned in a comment would be nice to have covered; I recall reading that the French Academy set out in earnest to scientifically establish that French was an optimal language for science. I probably misremember the details, but this is a good illustration of the type of phenomenon which was fairly prevalent in the emerging field of linguistics in Europe, probably even before the proper rise of what we today call modern linguistics in the 19th century.

Ideally, I would like a pointer to an accessible and popular treatment of this cultural bias in linguistics and its manifestations, suitable for giving someone who may be unaware of this tendency in our culture and perhaps in themselves.

Allow me to quote a passage from my answer:

... early linguists had an embarrassing tendency to postulate superiority of their own language, in what now, with modern eyes, can only be characterized as an inexcusable naïvety about cultural bias and perhaps even xenophobia. Any claim that your language in particular is somehow remarkable should be examined with the utmost prejudice.

How can this be exemplified and explained in more detail? Specifically the application of ostensibly scientific ideas about language to reaffirm a chauvinistic agenda.

(Or am I wrong, and biased?)

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    You're not wrong; I remember passages on this in my linguistics textbooks. I don't think superiority was even as much the cause as the modernist tendency to classify and taxonomize, which they did with individuals, classes, and "races". The member of "the criminal classes" can be identified by his receding chin, etc. Thus the Englishman is a creature more determined than any other (Conrad, "Youth"), and he has a language to suit; the Frenchman is philosophically uncommitted -- just look at his array of doubt-driven subjunctives. Anything to add evidence to stereotype and "scientize" it. Mar 15, 2018 at 13:49
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    Similarly, G.B. Caird in "The Language and Imagery of the Bible" cites older scholars who argue along these lines: Ancient Hebrew has four words for "go up, go down, go in, go out". Therefore, unlike English, they are incapable of abstracting "go" or movement from direction. Therefore their mental bent is a more concrete one. No wonder Pauline teaching escapes them. Never mind that French has "monter, descendre, entrer, sortir" or that Hebrew binyanim abstract causativity so you don't need two words for "eat/feed", "die/kill", "learn/teach". Can't these thick Englishmen abstract the action? ;) Mar 15, 2018 at 13:56
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    Other times it's the scientific inefficiency that's cited as a reason the language is poetic and expressive and subtle... as in the question you linked. Anyway, if I drag out my books later or people think these comments would make an answer already, I'll reformulate them. Mar 15, 2018 at 14:00
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    Re your bias: Is there any evidence that this bias itself was not, ironically, universal? "nemec", "barbari", "عجم"... And is it really limited to the early modern era? Such arguments are found in the popular press, just with an updated sense of political correctness. Mar 16, 2018 at 9:23
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    Also, for a modern resurrection of the idea, see the many economics-based articles that attempt to make market predictions based on language. One example is Keith Chen's paper from 2013, discussed in The Atlantic. He tried to correlate languages having an explicit future tense with their speakers' tendency to think and plan ahead. My understanding is that, tempting though such analyses are to follow, they aren't taken seriously by mainstream linguists. Jul 27, 2019 at 2:31

1 Answer 1


The account that comes to mind that is most à l'époque (early modern Western linguistics being around the time of the Enlightenment and European colonialism, as a rule of thumb, in the 18th century) is the following work from fauteuil 31 de l’Académie française and Abbot of Mureau, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac:

Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines (Condillac 1746):

Si le génie des langues commence à se former d’après celui des peuples, il n’achève de se développer que par le secours des grands écrivains. Pour en découvrir les progrès, il faut résoudre deux questions qui ont été souvent discutées et jamais, ce me semble, bien éclaircies : c’est de savoir pourquoi les arts et les sciences ne sont pas également de tous les pays et de tous les siècles ; et pourquoi les grands hommes dans tous les genres sont presque contemporains.

A translation by Thomas Nugent from 1756:

Though the character of languages is originally formed from that of the people, yet it is not perfected without the assistance of eminent writers. But to trace its progress, we should resolve two questions, which have been often discussed, and never, I think, rightly decided. It is to know the reason why the arts and sciences do not flourish alike in all ages and in all countries; and why men of eminence in every kind are generally contemporaries.

It does have this line:

Le français a été, pendant longtemps, si peu favorable aux progrès de l’esprit, que si l’on pouvait se représenter Corneille successivement dans les différents âges de la monarchie, on lui trouverait moins de génie, à proportion qu’on s’éloignerait davantage de celui où il a vécu, et l’on arriverait enfin à un Corneille qui ne pourrait donner aucune preuve de talent.

The French tongue was for a long time so unfavourable to the progress of the mind, that if we could frame an idea of Corneille successively in the different ages of our monarchy, we should find him to have been possessed of less genius in proportion to his greater distance from the age in which he lived, till at length we should reach a Corneille, who could not give the least mark of abilities.

The idea that the language of the nation has an effect of the progress of the nation, and language 'progress', scientific progress, and hence strengthening the nation, appears (to me at least) to be a fairly mainstream intellectual idea of the time. Almost a kind of weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but on the national scale as opposed to the individual.

One modern analysis does have this to say though:

In Condillac's treatise the tone of linguistic chauvinism [...] is absent.

This text is worth a read for its overview of historical attitudes to language over this period.

My assessment is in line with the comment under the question above, that the intuitions of intellectuals arose from popular stereotypes, and evidence was gathered to "rationalise" and "scientise" them.

  • Excellent answer; thank you very much!
    – tripleee
    May 23, 2019 at 18:42

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